• Josh Williams is chief executive of the Industry Training Federation.

The aftermath of a natural disaster is an unsettling time, and can alter our perspective in unexpected ways. We remember what is precious, and pay more attention to things we might otherwise take for granted.

Over the few weeks in Wellington, there has been a renewed appreciation for people with skills to fix things. Qualified people in services and trades who can restore essential utilities, rebuild homes, repair roads and strengthen workplaces - all the things that allow our communities and businesses to function under normal circumstances, let alone in emergencies.

Earthquakes bring sudden and unexpected change, but technology brings constant and expected change. We need a highly skilled and agile workforce, trained to meet the changing needs of this country, and able to retrain to meet the needs of the future.


So first the good news: with high employment rates and a growing economy, workplace learning is on the rise.

Right now, 140,000 apprentices and industry trainees are learning while earning on-the-job in a wide range of industries throughout New Zealand. They're gaining national qualifications, transferable skills, and work experience. They're learning on the job, upskilling and reskilling at different stages of their careers.

Most are developing - and simultaneously deploying - cutting-edge skills, knowledge, capabilities, and techniques. Others are being supported to overcome core literacy and numeracy issues on-the-job, which improves their home and work lives.

The even better news is that skills is firmly on the political agenda. Earlier this year, the Government boosted support for apprenticeships in the Budget. It recently added a further $10 million for apprenticeship subsidies, to support a new target of 50,000 apprentices by 2020.

The economic cycle has reached a point where skills shortages are the problem, not unemployment, and the Government is also keeping its word by applying resource where it is needed. This means more work-based learning.

On the other side of the aisle, Labour's Future of Work commission is leading New Zealand's version of a world-wide conversation. It's not surprising that with a changing and uncertain working future, skills and training is essential.

The commission's somewhat controversial proposal to levy employers who don't participate in training caught the most attention, but there was much more to it, including wage incentives and completion bonuses for employers who do engage in training, a plan for retraining older workers, a joined up skills strategy between industry and government, and a plan to reinstate the skills leadership responsibilities of Industry Training Organisations (ITOs).

New Zealand is a country that tends to rely on others to develop skills - be that tertiary institutions, other employers, or other countries. That might make short term sense, but skills shortages shouldn't therefore surprise us.


Getting the right number of workers with the right skills at the right time doesn't just happen. The Germans figured this out a few centuries ago - when it comes to its young people, instead of thinking "school then course then job" the Germans think "school then job then skills". Young people, businesses, and the Government could save time and money if we took on a bit more of that mindset here.

But relying on school leavers won't be enough. Short of inventing a time machine, no government policy can increase the number of babies born in New Zealand in the years around the millennium fireworks, when the birth rate was below replacement rate. The skills and immigration debates are connected, and will no doubt be a political focus next year.

In the end, meeting our future skill needs will utilise a combination of home-grown skills and skilled migration, and the health of our communities relies on us doing a good job of both.

Industry training is a win-win-win-win.

Workers win because they gain skills and qualifications at work, without student fees or debt.

Businesses win with more productive and competent workers, funding, and specialist training support.


The taxpayer wins as subsidies for workplace education are much lower, and trainees and apprentices pay tax rather than draw on student support.

And the Government wins through the instant economic return of a skilled workforce contributing to our economic future.

Our industry training and apprenticeship system relies on employers to provide its critical ingredients - time, knowledge, skills, work.

More investment from the Government will enable more employers to take on apprentices and trainees. This changes lives, businesses and our economy. The extra funding for more apprenticeships is a wise investment to ensure New Zealand is prepared with the skills to cope with sudden upheavals and future change.